Thoughts on Unorthodox

I watched Unorthodox on Netflix, the based-on-a-true-story account of a young woman who escapes from the insular and strict Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism–a group of Ultra-Orthodox “dynasties” whose iconic look is what many think of when the words “observant Jew” come to mind.
Hasidic Jews (Photo Credit)
I thought Unorthodox was a well-acted but pretty average “person-who-doesn’t-fit-in-escapes-from-restrictive-religious-community” story. The Hasidim are universally repressive, insular, and often cruel to the heroine Esty, who dreams of becoming a professional musician–a very unseemly ambition for a good Jewish housewife in the Satmar world–so she runs away to Germany. I didn’t find Unorthodox as compelling as those who loved it or as offensive as those who hated it. Indeed, more interesting than the miniseries itself is the sudden interest it has created in Hasidic Judaism.
I’ve encountered Hasidim on a few occasions, though from the Chabad Lubavitch dynasty rather than Satmar. Being the product of patrilineal intermarriage, my relationship with Jewish identity has often been an uneasy one. We lit candles on Hanukkah, had Passover seders, ate matzo and latkes, and learned how to swear in Yiddish. My upbringing was decently Jewish, culturally. But for all I’ve come to embrace it as I’ve gotten older–and felt more comfortable doing so–the identification was often discouraged when I was younger. After all, you only count as a Jew if your mother was a Jew. So I heard frequently from family and non-relatives alike. For reasons I’ve often had trouble articulating, this arbitrary rule caused me much pain. The door had been opened, and then it had been shut.
I have a cousin who joined Chabad Lubavitch when she was in her late twenties and railed to my intermarried father about “the blight of inter-faith marriage”–one of the greatest threats against replenishing “the 6 million,” as Esty’s family describes the Jews killed in the Holocaust. My cousin shaves her head, she cranks out children (I think she’s up to 10 now, though I haven’t talked to her decades), and is generally the kind of woman Esty’s family wants her to be.
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For her attitudes, I called her a bitch and a cunt and a fanatic when she came up in family conversation. I’m not sure she even remembers if I exist, but she became a symbol for all the hurt I felt at being told I didn’t count. That’s probably not fair, but I don’t especially regret any of the things I said about her either. One of my flaws is a terrier-like unwillingness to let go when I decide I’m angry at someone, and I read my cousin’s views onto all of Hasidism, then all of the rabbinate, then at some point, Judaism generally. Though our experiences were quite different, I could sympathize with Esty’s feeling of being an outsider, rejected because her lesbian mother left the Satmar community. I understood her disaffection with a tribe she never asked to be affiliated with. I wasn’t a Jewish anti-Semite, but I held an animosity no Gentile could get away with.
When I finally did take an Introduction to Judaism course sponsored by a consortium of local synagogues, I was a flagrantly heretical student. I pitched this as “beta-testing Judaism,” but in many ways it was more of a subtle demand for a reckoning: Most of you believe as little as I do, and know less about the history and culture of the Tribe. Why do you get to be a part of this and I’m just a bastard? But I discovered something interesting.
The Reform rabbis of Denver’s Temple Emanuel were incredibly welcoming, but the ones who most appreciated my attitude were the Orthodox rabbis. They liked that I spoke up in class, asked the questions that verged on blasphemy. “Why don’t patrilineal Jews count?” I asked a Modern Orthodox rabbi. “That’s not a rule in the Jewish Bible.”
portrait of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson wearing a black hat
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, one of the most famous rabbis of Chabad Lubavitch. (Photo Credit)
“It’s in the Oral Torah,” he said. He had been the funniest and most engaging of the rabbis so far, talking about his taste in whiskey and drawing parallels between Jewish law and Game of Thrones. I kind of liked him for all I viewed him as The Enemy.
“So we’re like the Jon Snows of Judaism,” I said, expecting a party-line “thanks for playing but you lose” sort of answer.
He smiled and said, “I guess you could say that.”
But the one who I remember best was the Chabad rabbi who came to teach us about the Talmud. He looked like an extra from Unorthodox–black suit, black fedora, peyot sidecurls, bushy, wizard-like beard. He’d split his time growing up between Williamsburg (where Esty lives in the show) and Sydney, Australia, and his accent blended Brooklyn Yiddish with Down Under Aussie. He was the funniest of all. Good-natured and philosophical, he made what I expected to be one of the most boring classes into one of the most fascinating, and I told him so afterwards.
“Rabbi, my Mom’s not Jewish, so I know I don’t count in your system, but thanks for a really interesting class.”
He gave me a very kind look and replied, “You may not count in my Judaism, but what does yours say?”
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a moment where you completely re-examined a long-term, deeply-held prejudice, but that was mine. I shook his hand and walked towards my car, tears in my eyes.
A group shot of actors from the Netflix series Unorthodox (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
And that, for me, is where Unorthodox fails. A younger Hunter would have cheered on its depiction of rigid and intolerant Hasidim and the bitchy Israeli woman, alone among Esty’s newfound friends in Germany, who tells her she’ll never realize her dream of being a musician. Of course they rejected you, Esty–that’s what Judaism does to people.
But a younger Hunter was schooled enough in anthropology and the complexity of human beings that he should have known better, should have been fairer. I wish Unorthodox had been as well.

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